Jesus Died to be Our Sin Offering, Releasing us From Guilt
In the previous post, we saw how the main idea behind a sin offering in the Old Testament was not to punish an animal in the place of a sinner (although killing it certainly had the same effect!) but to offer it to God and to obtain its blood, the seat of its life, and to shed that blood so as to release the life in it.
Similarly, there is no idea in Christ’s death of God displacing our punishment onto Him, although His dying had the same effect. That is why we do sometimes speak of His death as punishment, metaphorically. We mean that the Crucifixion had the appearance and the effect of punishment although that was not its purpose.
In fact, a sin offering, in the Old Testament, didn’t even have to be an animal. If you couldn’t afford a bullock or goat, or even two doves or pigeons, a measure of the finest flour would suffice. (Leviticus 5:11-13) Flour cannot be punished, cannot suffer, cannot die, from which observation alone we ought to learn that punishment, suffering, and death were not the point of a sin offering.
Even if you only offered God that measure of flour, He would still forgive, because the offering was never the price of His forgiveness in the first place. His forgiveness has no price. It’s absolutely free, a notion that only bothers the devil, or only bothers us when we are considering others (not ourselves) receiving God's mercy for free.
So if a sin offering to God is not an exchange for His forgiveness, what is it for? It’s for just that: an offering! When we have offended someone, and we go to that person for forgiveness, the gracious thing to do is not to show up empty-handed! A sin offering is something you give to God as a gift, like the flowers a man brings his wife after a quarrel. The calf or birds or handful of flour or flowers are a token of your offering of yourself. That's what is needed if the relationship is to be restored.
And just such an offering, Christ made on the Cross on behalf of all of us. He offered God His body and blood, His life and His death, His faith and loyalty, His love, His obedience, His all, holding back nothing.
Now when we speak of perfect love, perfect faith, perfect obedience, we need to notice that perfection in these virtues requires extreme circumstances not merely to demonstrate the perfection, but first of all to elicit it. Easier circumstances summon easier forms of courage, easier degrees of faith and love and obedience. Harder circumstances call us to exert a more difficult faith, love, and obedience. Only the most extreme circumstances allow us to exert perfect love, perfect faith, perfect obedience. That necessary, most extreme circumstance, for Jesus, was the Cross. That is why the author of Hebrews says, “...though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” (Hebrews 5:8-9)
His dying was necessary in order to exercise obedience and love and faith to the point of perfection. That is to say, He never backed away from truth though the cost were death; He never acted out of anything but faith and love, never abandoned God or cursed Him, and above all, He did not refuse us His life-giving body and blood when called upon to donate them. In short, He died to defeat satan by love and faith and obedience, because satan is not utterly defeated until you have let him throw his worst weapons at you.
This, then, is another sense in which Christ died to be a sin offering, for obedience, made possible by faith and flowing from love, is the perfect sacrifice. "Has the LORD [as great] delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey [is] better than sacrifice, [and] to hearken than the fat of rams." (I Samuel 15:22. See also Isaiah 1:10-20, Jeremiah 7:22-23, Hosea 6:6.)
In Hebrews, we read:
For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.
Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
"Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.
Then I said, 'Behold, I have come--
In the volume of the book it is written of Me--
To do Your will, O God.'"
Previously saying, "Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them" (which are offered according to the law), then He said, "Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God." He takes away the first that He may establish the second.
By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:4-9)
Christ “takes away the first”, that is, Old Testament kinds of sacrifice, and comes with a body (i.e., as a human being) to enable Him to practice obedience; He thereby establishes “the second”, that is, the sacrifice of obedience to the Will of God.
And God was pleased with this offering. Or, we can say, God was propitiated, for it means the same thing. “Propitiated” does not here imply soothing God’s ruffled feathers, calming His temper tantrum, or appeasing His wrath. It simply means pleased.
And this perfect obedience (a work of perfect love premised upon perfect faith), due the Creator from all men, Christ offered on behalf of us all, and God accepted it as being from all of us. St. Paul writes, “For as by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19)
God having accepted the offering of perfection on behalf of us all, there remains nothing to punish, no place for punishment, no application for it. For Him to require both perfection and punishment would have been not only unjust and immoral, but also illegal.
Not that any amount of suffering by anybody could ever offset guilt, anyway; only repentance can. Only faith cures faithlessness; only love heals lovelessness; only obedience corrects disobedience. Suffering merely punishes guilt (and momentarily, it's true, fends off guilt feelings) without addressing its causes or providing any genuine relief.
Christ deals with its causes. He not only offers His perfection to God on our behalf, but also offers it to us, that we may partake of it as branches partake of the Vine’s sap. When we are grafted into Him in Holy Baptism and when the Holy Spirit comes to reside in us in Holy Chrismation, immediately the seeds of righteousness are planted in us; already we partake of Christ's righteous, holy, never-ending Life.
This is how Christ, on the Cross, deals with our guilt. His Life-bearing Blood is shed upon the world. His Body is offered for our spiritual food. His offering to the Father of perfect faith and love and obedience reverses, remediates, replaces, and legally more than offsets our own faithlessness, lovelessness, and disobedience. Thus, at the cross, "justice and mercy kiss," as indeed they always had.
But God does not work such miracles for people He has not forgiven. It is impossible He could have done all this for us and yet be holding a grudge against us. Therefore, this sacrifice, upon the Cross displayed, from the Cross offered to God as a pleasing (propitiatory) sacrifice, from the Cross given to us as new possibilities of which we may partake, shows us God’s forgiveness streaming down upon the world. The Cross is not some basis for God's forgiveness, as if a basis were needed; neither is it only a revelation of His forgiveness. Instead, the Cross is the ultimate form God’s forgiveness takes. **The Cross cleanses our conscience, persuading us that God loves us, has always loved us and ever shall love us; and that God forgives us, always has forgiven us and ever shall forgive us - period, no matter what.
God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
**If this sentence alarms you, see my earlier post on what God's eternal, never-changing love for us does and does not mean.)